Highlights from Microsoft’s Build 2015 Keynote address

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Three and a half hours was the length of Microsoft’s opening address and it was entirely necessary in the context of the amount of climate shift happening within the company and in the market right now. The times are a-changing for the dominant OS vendor in the computer industry and their continued success relies on Windows 10 to usher in the shifts in how people use computers. A lot of the announcements during the Build Keynote were centered on work finally coming to a head that began in Windows 8 and this is Microsoft’s final vision for the desktop for the forseeable future – another somewhat touch-friendly interface that seems to have its feet dipped into both the desktop and mobile pools at the same time. Lets play catch-up with the announcements so far.

Project Spartan becomes Microsoft Edge

Well, this comes as no surprise. Project Spartan, Microsoft’s move to change up Internet Explorer and bring it closer to being usable on multiple platforms, is now called Microsoft Edge. The browser still retains the familiar “e” logo we’ve seen in previous years, but its now sharper and more… edgy. Microsoft promises that Edge will be scalable on many platforms from Windows Phone up to the desktop, with the browser supporting extensions just like Chrome and Firefox. In fact, Microsoft will be publishing tools to help Chrome plugin developers to make those same plugins available for Edge.

However, there are a few things missing from Edge in the current 10074 build of Windows 10 that makes Internet Explorer slightly better for some uses. One is pinning websites to the taskbar – doesn’t happen in Edge. There are also no tab previews yet, even though it was shown working in that video you watched a few moments ago. Microsoft wants Edge to replace IE but I wonder if this will be the case – many users will want to have IE 11 on hand for testing and working with web apps and if this is reserved purely for Enterprise versions of Windows 10, then that might halt a significant amount of upgrades until Microsoft remedies this.

Edge is also very closely related to IE 11, with a fork of the Trident rendering engine being used and having almost all of the legacy bloat stripped out of it to allow the browser to be upgraded and updated faster to take advantage of new web standards.

Continuum for Windows Phone 10 turns your phone into a PC

Years back, Canonical was demoing a special version of Ubuntu OS for their custom phone hardware (Ubuntu Edge, haha, how about that…) that allowed you to dock the phone into a hub that would turn it into a mobile PC when hooked up to a monitor, a keyboard and a mouse. Originally this idea was thought to be silly, but Microsoft seems to think quite the opposite. Continuum for phones turns your phone into a PC with all the functionality of the Windows RT operating system, and it looks like you can seamlessly switch between the user modes without needing to reboot or risk losing your work.

There’s some things to consider before going gaga over this, though. It will almost certainly require your phone to have MHL capability and be able to use MHL cables to hook up your phone to a compatible monitor. Not every device is MHL-capable, so this feature relies on the hardware ecosystem around you to already support this kind of functionality. Microsoft says that only phones shipping with Windows Phone 10 will get this feature out of the box. So, uh, it looks like you’re going to have to pony up quite a bit of cash if you want this feature to work for you.

One benefit, at least, is that the latest versions of the MHL standard do support device charging, so you won’t run out of battery power while running your phone as a computer. Depending on the hardware inside, you’ll of course be limited to how much multitasking you can do and obviously thermal constraints will prevent you from doing things like video editing. Running something like AutoCAD probably won’t work, seeing as these devices will be running Windows RT technically, not x86-based Windows.

Porting over iOS and Android applications becomes much easier

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Microsoft wants its name all over the place and it also wants to be as popular in the mobile and tablet space as Android and iOS. To help this along, Windows 10 in all forms will become something of a universal platform. Yes, we’re still chasing the “write once, run anywhere” dream, but at least this time we’re pretty close to seeing it actually work for once. During the keynote, Microsoft showed off Android applications being run on Windows 10 that weren’t emulated. Project Astoria is what makes this possible, running Android apps inside Windows 10 in a manner not dissimilar to Linux users running Wine for Windows apps.

Project Astoria is a method of getting Windows 10 to read and write to the same binary libraries that Android relies for running applications, and it enables support for running apps programmed in Java or C++. Most of Microsoft’s apps distributed through the Windows store run on .Net, so this is quite the surprise for developers on other platforms. Presumably we’ll either have to sideload applications manually, or we’ll eventually get an Android Store app just like the Amazon app on Android that will allow us to browse and download software from the Google Play store.

Also demonstrated was applications coded in Objective C for iOS running without too much trouble on a Windows 10 desktop, through another initiative called Project Islandwood that allows Visual Studio to convert the Xcode for the application into something Windows can understand. Its not perfect and a lot of the legwork still needs to be done regarding smoothing of animations and making sure that applications are run bug-free, but it works.

Streaming games from your Xbox One is almost a thing

When Windows 10 launches, it will ship with a new Xbox app that will now allow you to stream games running on your Xbox to any device running Windows 10 in your home that is also hooked up to an Xbox One controller. This works very similarly to the Playstation TV – hook up the two devices to your local network, set up the other one in another room or connected to another TV and relax with some games away from your console. I’m expecting that someone will test this out with a notebook connected up to a virtual LAN using Hamachi or something similar and run game streams through a WiFi or LTE connection, and I expect that it will work just fine.

What this means is that anyone can get something like the Intel Compute Stick plugged into a TV in their bedroom, have it updated to Windows 10 and then stream games to it using the HDMI connection to the TV and the Xbox One for Windows controller hooked up through USB. That’s pretty rad. You can’t do this with the Xbox app for Windows Phone, but maybe they’ll figure out a clever way to do this so that Microsoft has an answer to the Playstation Vita’s remote play feature, complete with a spiffy-looking cradle-thing.

What I’m curious about, though, is what the latency is compared to running the game straight off the console. I can see some people having a Xbox One installed into their bedroom or home office, but have it run headless so that they can stream the game to their PC, where they have everything set up already and have a more comfortable chair set up.

Improvements to the Windows Store

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Finally, the Windows Store is getting rid of some of its quirky behaviour and finally behaving like an actual software portal. Microsoft will be making it easier for the store to offer up different applications based on your user profile, so if you’re using your device with a corporate account hosted on an Exchange server, you’ll be able to browse and download Store apps made available by your company for your device to allow you to get set up quickly. Very neat.

There’s also the promise of carrier billing for mobile devices and tablets with HSDPA/LTE modems that can take off funds from your cellular account, which will enable more people in developing countries to buy these applications, which will probably come with a cross-buy license, without using a credit card or PayPal. There’s also a new advert API that will allow you to figure out how effective your advertising is on the store and whether actually seeing your advert leads to a purchase.

And lastly, the Windows Store will soon be able to serve up .Net and Win32 applications on the desktop through the store, and will install them in a sandboxed environment for extra security and stability of the system. Uninstalling these apps might also be a cleaner process, as this won’t require mucking about in the Windows registry, or manually deleting files left over that the installer didn’t remove on its own. This should be a great way to improve the discoverability of software for Windows systems, but it also is the very thing that Gabe Newell feared – that the Windows Store would end up cultivating a walled garden experience and may foster an unhealthy environment where everyone tries to spend buckets of money getting their adverts to show up in search results and at the top of listed categories. It will be interesting to see how Microsoft navigates the minefield ahead of them.

You can check out the full conference linked below, but you may want to schedule about three hours to get through it all.